21 MAY 1948, Page 12


MUSSORGSKY'S Boris Godunov and Verdi's Requiem both present difficult problems of style and interpretation for English singers, and I am most unwilling to cavil at the Covent Garden performance, especially as we were given the genuine Mussorgsky music. Of the singers, Paolo Silveri made an unfailingly musical and a genuinely dramatic' Boris, though his voice was hardly of the right quality nor his personality strong enough to dominate the stage whenever he was on it. David Franklin, looking like an El Greco saint, made a sensitive and dignified Pimen while, at the other end of the monastic scale, Howell Glynne's Varlaam (a little too near the red-nosed comedian) was a genuinely dramatic interpretation of the role. Edgar Evans has a pleasant voice, but he was too gentlemanlike for Grigory Otrepiev, and did not give the impression that he would even have dreamed of setting himself up as a False Pretender. Edith Coates brought to the part of the Hostess that quality of physical abandon which haunts her in all her roles (even her Fricka had a touch of Carmen), but both she and Constance Shacklock (Marina) were hampered by the production.

For there, indeed, was the rub. What induced the Covent Garden authorities to hand over the production of this, of all operas, to a novice ? An almost incredible streak of vulgarity ran through the whole production—from-the pantomime opulence of the coronation scene, through the obscene duck in the inn, the self-closing grills and bogus apparitions in the Kremlin, the fantastic swing and completely irrelevant scenery at Sandomir, the cheap shadow- displays of the Polish ball, to the return of automatic doors and the theatrical use of the ikon motif in the death scene. Some of the sets. were very beautiful—notably the opening scenes of the prologue and of Act I in the Novodievichy and Churof monasteries respectively. The chorus sang excellently ; but how grossly exag- gerated their role in the opera has been.! They only appear in the prologue and what is 'Virtually the epilogue.

Apart from the actual production, the main weakness of the per- formance lay in the singers' lack of that combination of epic size

with earthly naturalness which is the distinguishing quality of Boris Godunov as an opera as it is of so much of *Russian literature in general. When Mussorgsky's own conception lacks this quality—as in the Polish scenes—the music is noticeably inferior, and it was in those scenes that the contrast between production and music was least painful. There is much more to the Russian style than walls plastered with Byzantine paintings, however effective, and boyars with bearskins. That is only glorified Wardour Street.

* * * * Victor de Sabata's performance of Verdi's Requiem—for it was in a very special sense his—had all the style which the Covent Garden Boris lacked. From the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra he extracted a warmth, a dramatic fury and a passion of tenderness of which I never suspected them capable. Gladys Ripley stood out in the quartet of soloists, not only for the beauty of her voice but for the emotional power of her singing. 'Joan Hammond's voice, excellent in range and purity of tone, had not quite the necessary power. Norman Walker achieved real nobility in the bass solos, and Frank Titterton, though lacking the necessary beauty of tone, sang the Ingemisco with a sense of style and the right lyrical ardour. De Sabata made both the drama and the intense lyricism of the music, which sometimes baffle English con- ductors and choirs, sound as they should—natural, spontaneous and